Smile For the Cop With the Smartphone and the Facial Recognition Software

Cop phoneViewminder / / CC BY-NC-NDYou look familiar—says the cop with the smartphone. And never mind that FBI specifications allow for a faulty match up to 20 percent of the time; local, state, and federal law enforcement officers based in California's San Diego and Imperial counties have quietly taken to the streets with federally funded tablets and smartphones to match the faces of people they meet with databased photographs. If the experiment proves successful, in government terms, you can probably expect the blend of cops, mobile devices, and facial recognition software to come to a sidewalk near you.

For the Center for Investigative Reporting, Ali Winston writes:

On a residential street in San Diego County, Calif., Chula Vista police had just arrested a young woman, still in her pajamas, for possession of narcotics. Before taking her away, Officer Rob Halverson paused in the front yard, held a Samsung Galaxy tablet up to the woman’s face and snapped a photo.

Halverson fiddled with the tablet with his index finger a few times, and – without needing to ask the woman’s name or check her identification – her mug shot from a previous arrest, address, criminal history and other personal information appeared on the screen.

Halverson had run the woman's photograph through the Tactical Identification System, a new mobile facial recognition technology now in the hands of San Diego-area law enforcement. In an instant, the system matches images taken in the field with databases of about 348,000 San Diego County arrestees. The system itself has nearly 1.4 million booking photos because many people have multiple mug shots on record.

The little-known program could become the largest expansion of facial recognition technology by U.S. law enforcement. Amid an international debate over collecting and sharing huge amounts of data on the public, this pilot program is putting that metadata to use in the field in real time.

Managed by the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS), a joint project of 75 government agencies, and funded by the National Institute of Justice, the Tactical Identification System combines traditional mugshots with controversial (and not entirely reliable) facial recognition software, and puts it in the hands of police officers in the field. The system deployed in California appears to draw only from booking photos at the moment, but many states have already linked facial recognition technology with their driver's license databases, multi-purposing everybody's least favorite photos into de facto police lineup images. Police lineup images with uncertain access control and, as mentioned, a high potential for false positives. It's probably safe to assume that, if the Tactical Identification System approach is replicated elsewhere, police mobile devices will be linked with that wider range of photo databases.

So, when do police officers in San Diego and Imperial counties whip out their smartphones to identify passers-by? During arrests, of course, but also during other encounters with the public.

One Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who provided a testimonial said he used the device during a warrant sweep in Oceanside. While on the sweep, the agent wrote, his “ ‘spidy senses' were tingling” about the immigration status of a neighbor of the person he was pursuing.

He decided to run the man’s picture through the facial recognition software. The agent discovered the man was in the country illegally and had a 2003 DUI conviction in San Diego.

“I whipped out the Droid (smartphone) and snapped a quick photo and submitted for search,” the immigration agent wrote in his testimonial for the Automated Regional Justice Information System. “The subject looked inquisitively at me not knowing the truth was only 8 seconds away. I received a match of 99.96 percent. This revealed several prior arrests and convictions and provided me an FBI #. When I showed him his booking photo, his jaw dropped.”

You never know when your photo will be snapped. So remember to comb your hair before going out in public.

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  • ||

    Oh, this won't be abused. No, not even remotely. I'll make a prediction: these things will be used disproportionately to facially recognize hot chicks the officers come across to see if they can find a way to "interact" with the hot chick.

  • Pro Libertate||

    This is how A Scanner Darkly get started.

  • Ted S.||

    Damn you, Epi! That's the first thing I was thinking!

    Well, actually, it was the second. The first was how many cops hate it when people record them. Goddamn fucking hypocrites.

  • TheZeitgeist||

    ...Halverson had run the woman's photograph through the Tactical Identification System...

    What is it with cops and needing to make everything sound military? 'Tactical Identification System?' Versus a strategic one? Stupid.

  • ||

    So who will be the first American to endure a forcible anal cavity search for facecrime?

  • Rasilio||


    Is that when you don't swallow for the nice officer?

  • 0x90||

    Naw, it's an app on the iphone.

  • Paul.||

    This country needs some kind of Star Chamber to deal with rogue cops.

  • Metazoan||

    Such a high false discovery rate will surely not lead to incorrect arrests. And if someone is incorrectly arrested, the data collected will surely not be retained.

    Statists gonna state...

  • Jquip||

    I rather like the way the error rates are produced. IF the cop snaps a pic of a perp it'll fail to identify them 1 in 7 times. But IF the cop snaps a pic of a non-perp, it'll call them a perp 1 in 5 times.

    Nothing like erring on the side of cavity searches.

  • ||

    I'm going to start wearing an Episiarch mask whenever I do crimes.

  • ||

    Get in line, pal. I've been wearing an Episiarch mask during crimes for years.

  • Brett L||

    Kind of like Bryan Cranston walking around ComiCon in a Walter White mask?

    That's brilliant.

  • Pro Libertate||

    It's crazy how good high-end masks have gotten. Like Rollin Hand good almost.

  • Agammamon||

    There was a story running around a while back about a small group of black criminals robbing banks with masks done up to make them look white.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Barney and Willy?

  • Paul.||

    Isn't the Episiarch mask a crime by itself?

  • ||

    Then when I order sushi and don't pay, it'll be TWO crimes!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Do you still blame society?

  • ||

    Hard to say. The lights are growing dim.

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me.

  • ||

    But it still hurts!

  • ||

  • Metazoan||

    While on the sweep, the agent wrote, his “ ‘spidy senses' were tingling” about the immigration status of a neighbor of the person he was pursuing.

    Yeah, that's all that was tingling, I'm sure.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Better ten thousand innocent men spend a few days in the klink than one guilty man go free.

  • Metazoan||

    Better ten thousand innocent men spend a few days in the klink and have their DNA and fingerprints collected than one guilty man go free.


  • William of Purple||


  • 0x90||

    This is clearly discriminatory against people who aren't cross-dressers.

  • ||

    Anyone want to take odds on how long it will be before it's illegal to NOT have your picture in the database?

  • PD Scott||

    You know, if the technology had been available when Social Security had been implemented, I'd bet we'd all have been photographed whenever we applied. Probably'd have to get our pics taken again when our SS status changes.

  • ||

    And drug tests. Don't forget the drug tests.

  • Dave Krueger||

    Not to worry. This is just a natural extension of the government's plan to know everything every U.S. citizen says and does. You know, to fight terrorism.

    This is what government calls balancing privacy and security (as if one goes up when the other goes down).

  • Metazoan||

    You know, to fight terrorism.

    Not sure I really believe that excuse anymore.

  • PD Scott||

    You may already be a terrorist!

  • alizamkz783||

    My last pay check was 9500 dolr working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can't believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is what I do----------

  • Paul.||

    What's wrong with Facial Recognition.

    is that we do a very good job if we have full frontal facial images that are evenly lit, with a high amount of resolution, meaning a whole lot of pixels—hopefully at least 90 pixels between the eyes—and we have a completely uncluttered background. In fact, the standard refers to an 18 percent grayscale nonreflective background. So that’s the technology we’re fundamentally dealing with.


    In other words, if you look at a mug shot coming out of a police department, it will not have an 18 percent nonreflective grayscale background. You’ll see all kinds of stuff in the background.
  • 0x90||

    Yeah, but, cameras and stuff! Metapixel! Blrgllp!

  • ||

    Lack of accuracy is a feature, not a bug, Paul.

  • Paul.||

    Yep, it'll be like the Canine "alert" on your car seat.

    I got a "ding" from the system, anal probes all around.

  • Dweebston||

    And people use the term "chilling effect" with regard to law enforcement practices as though chilling the potential for flagrantly abusive habits is a bad thing. These things deserve heavy fetters, not light slaps on the wrist.

  • SugarFree||

    You can't blame cops suing technology do what individual officers already can do. Every human cop has millions of faces and names remember and can recall them all to match everyone they see as they walk down the street, so it's OK that they use a machine to do the same thing.


  • Paul.||


    I see what you did there.

  • Ted S.||

    How do you sue technology? ;-)

  • SugarFree||

    Robot lawyers.

  • thorax232||

    How long before they just have cameras on top of their cars scanning everyone?


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